The Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge is located south of Missoula, Montana along Highway 93, which is a major tourism route through the northern Rockies. This wildlife refuge is situated next to the Bitterroot River, which runs through a historic valley that goes by the same name. The Bitterroot Valley is a vast agricultural area in modern times and the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge protects a large tract of remaining natural wetlands within an inherent migratory pathway that attracts a wide variety of North American bird species. Everything from rare woodpeckers and waterfowl to ospreys and sandhill cranes can be seen in the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, so be sure to pack a powerful lens for the ride!
The autumn migration season certainly beckons bird watchers to head for the wildlife areas of the west and in recent years the window of opportunity has stretched beyond what used to be the limit. Climate change has extended the warm summer weather conditions well into fall in many western regions, but what would seem like an ideal situation for birding actually has consequences. More heat and less rain all add up to severe drought conditions that cause wildfires to grow to record breaking proportions. The rampant wildfire smoke along with less available food and water certainly has affected western migration corridors. Currently the wildlife in migratory pathways is stressed and there are fewer numbers, so an autumn season birding trip to a refuge may not be as fruitful as in the past.
Since the wildlife is under stress in these trying times, it is best to be as peaceful as possible while doing a wildlife refuge tour. Just like at many other wildlife areas, the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge features an automobile touring route, so a visitor does not even need to exit the car. In fact, hanging the camera out the vehicle window has always been a great wildlife photography technique and a wildlife refuge automobile tour is a good place to put this method into practice. Taken for granted, a tall vehicle like a Jeep or pickup truck will offer a better vantage point than a sports car that hugs the ground, which is something to keep in mind when planning a drive by shooting style wildlife photography mission.
The old days of lugging a big camera through the brush as if on some kind of a safari may return someday, but for the time being reducing the human impact is best to do. In return, the wildlife will stick around for a longer time and there will be more opportunities to hang the camera out the car window. For those who need to stretch the legs while taking it all in, there is a picnic area with hiking paths through the woods next to the Bitterroot River at a central location in this big park. The towering mountain peaks in the background of the riverside marsh ponds sure does make the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge an appealing place to be during the fall birding season, so be sure to keep this unique spot in mind!
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